Newcastle, September 1780
After five years of bloodshed, military incompetence and growing insurrection on the battlefields of America, anti-war feeling was running high among the radicals in Newcastle. Linking the American rebels’ cause with their own grievances over high taxes, inadequate representation and government corruption, the activists had steadily garnered support among the craftsmen, shopkeepers and middle-class professionals who comprised the city’s electorate. Ever since they had narrowly lost their campaign to unseat the ruling oligarchy at the 1777 by-election, the radicals had redoubled their efforts with hard-hitting pamphlets and rousing calls to action in newspapers sympathetic to their cause. So when news reached the city that the Prime Minister, Lord North, had declared a snap general election in September, the popular movement looked forward to the contest with relish.
With elections throughout the eighteenth century being decided almost exclusively on local issues according to local allegiances, the 1780 general election was the first to canvass national opinion on a major political question. Although the beleaguered Lord North had long since lost his appetite for the war in America, as well as for the consequent drain on the national coffers, George III remained resolutely committed to retaining his beloved colonies across the Atlantic. Convinced that American independence would eventually have to be conceded, particularly since France and Spain had joined forces with the colonists, North had even attempted to broker a coalition with the leader of the opposition, the Marquis of Rockingham. When his conciliatory efforts failed, North had wrongfooted Rockingham by calling an early general election seeking a national mandate to continue the American war. Having already suffered a series of humiliating defeats on allegations of corruption and waste over the summer, North faced the election with some apprehension.
If Lord North lacked enthusiasm for the political fray, Andrew Robinson Bowes had no such qualms when he declared himself a candidate for the Newcastle poll. Although Georgian elections rarely involved a contest - the members usually being agreed in advance at a cordial meeting of civic worthies - Bowes knew that Newcastle promised an intense political skirmish. Having heavily invested his money and his time in wooing the local electorate since his by-election defeat, he now approached the September poll with bullish self-confidence. Of the borough’s two sitting MPs, Sir John Trevelyan had staunchly backed the Government’s American campaign while Matthew White Ridley had wavered between government and opposition - at one point refusing to present a petition opposing the war to Parliament. Skilfully judging the mood of the moment, Bowes firmly staked his colours to the anti-war platform. Earlier in the year, he had spoken forcefully against the war at a packed meeting in Newcastle’s Guildhall.1 Cleverly appealing to his listeners’ pockets as much as their moral values, he had stormed, ‘we are taxed to support the luxuries and the corruption which we condemn.’ And with no trace of irony, the High Sheriff, who desperately sought an Irish peerage, passionately pledged his backing to the radical demands for an end to government sinecures and pensions. Writing to a sceptical friend at the time he had declared: ‘I am glad to find the opinion of people in London against my election; it will give you the opportunity of making some good bets.’2 So certain was Bowes of victory indeed that he even promised to compensate his friend should he lose the gamble, adding darkly, ‘But you must bet upon a proviso, that L—[ady] S—[trathmore] lives.’ For all his radicalism, he was well aware that his reputation stood or fell by his connection with the Bowes family name.
With Trevelyan having wisely decided to seek re-election elsewhere and Ridley a certainty for one of the seats, Bowes knew that his biggest challenge was to be adopted as the single radical candidate. As well as avoiding an unpleasant and unnecessary contest, of course, this would save Bowes the immense expense of another election campaign. In May, therefore, Bowes had addressed a meeting in London at the Hole in the Wall, the Fleet Street tavern where Newcastle exiles congregated, insinuating that he and Ridley had agreed to stand on a joint ticket. The cosy compact was upset the following month, however, when a third candidate, Thomas Delaval, put himself forward as the people’s choice. As Ridley hurriedly sought to distance himself from both Bowes and Delaval, all three candidates set out their stalls at a lively public debate in August. Delivering what one newspaper described as a ‘spirited harangue’, Bowes bluntly informed the gathered freemen that since he had already spent a large fortune fighting the previous election they owed him their support for this one.3 When both Bowes and Delaval vowed to back key radical demands for triennial elections and increased representation - and Ridley stubbornly refused to make any such promises - the contest seemed as open as ever. ‘The canvass is begun at Newcastle - three candidates, all upon different interests,’ Bowes wrote to his friend in London, adding with a note of desperation, ‘for God’s sake use your influence with as many people of the WHOLE in the WALL as you possibly can find out, and pray use ANY MEANS to procure them for me.’4 So as the election campaign began in earnest with the dissolution of Parliament on 1 September, the three Newcastle candidates squared up for battle.
Just as in the 1777 by-election, Bowes was prepared to go to any lengths to win a seat. Inevitably, this would prove an expensive business. Despite his enduring financial difficulties, Bowes threw open Gibside Hall and hosted lavish entertainments in the city in a bid to win over the 2,500 or so freemen eligible to vote. Once again, Bowes demanded that Mary Eleanor turn her literary talents to championing his cause. Taking two meagre rooms above a china shop in the Bigg Market as lodgings for the duration of the campaign, Bowes installed Mary under the scrutiny of loyal servants. Here she was kept busy at her desk from morning to night, churning out stirring messages for handbills, campaign songs and vote-seeking letters while Bowes strutted through the town, she later wrote, ‘flirting with his mistresses’.5
Just as with the previous contest, Bowes’s moral character emerged as a central issue in the campaign. One anonymous correspondent in the government-supporting Newcastle Courant branded him ‘an abandoned prodigal’ addicted to ‘habitual luxury and extravagance’.6 Having attained his fortune through the ‘fancy of a weak undiscerning female’, the writer grimly predicted that Lady Strathmore’s death would ‘soon . . . deprive him’ of his wealth and status. Lumbering to his defence, one of Bowes’s supporters in the radical-leaning Newcastle Chronicle feebly countered that his closest friends ‘think they observe a real progress of reformation in such parts of his behaviour as seemed to require it’. Having scaled the ladder of rank and fortune, the writer was sure Bowes now felt ‘the obligation of becoming more respectable in his personal character’. Falling back on the age-old appeal not to pry into a politician’s private life, his defenders hoped to deflect Bowes’s failings by pushing Mary into the limelight as: ‘A Lady, whose fine natural talents, improved by a most liberal education, have furnished her with a share of good sense, real knowledge, and great proficiency in the politest arts and literature, which are equalled by few men’.
Polling began on 11 September and lasted 11 days, barring Sundays. Each morning Bowes marched confidently from his committee rooms to the hustings with his band of followers to deliver the slick slogans and impassioned promises calculated to win wavering electors to his cause. Each day was dedicated to winkling reluctant voters out of taverns and coffee-houses with inducements of ale, nourishment and other entreaties. Young men fearful of being forced into service with the navy were promised protection from the impress while those Geordies living out of town were tempted with travel expenses, even from London, to return homewards and cast their votes. As Bowes would later put it, an honest freeman of Newcastle could hardly be expected to travel three hundred miles at his own expense to cast his vote in an election. When his attempts to wine and dine the voters failed to secure the desired result, Bowes resorted to his usual dirty tricks. At one point he fooled a group of his opponents’ supporters into boarding a ship in expectation of customary hospitality. Once aboard the well-bribed captain weighed anchor and set sail for Ostend blaming unhelpful winds for his inability to return in time for polling.7 As in most contested elections voting continued, with the accumulated results of the open ballot published daily, until only a trickle of electors remained. Finally, on 21 September, a total of 2,245 freemen having cast their votes, the outcome was announced. As expected, Ridley retained his seat, winning 1,408 votes. His fellow MP, elected with 1,135 votes, a clear 50 ahead of his rival Delaval, was Andrew Robinson Bowes.
As the radicals toasted their hero on his historic victory, the honourable new member for Newcastle broadcast his success by ringing the church bells in Whickham. A week later, Bowes joined with a somewhat reluctant Ridley in hosting a celebratory ball in the assembly rooms which many of the local gentry pointedly boycotted. As Ridley’s brother, Nicholas, wryly remarked: ‘Bowes is not the kind of colleague that a man would wish for.’8 Thomas Delaval, meanwhile, responded angrily to his defeat by launching a legal challenge, levelling accusations of bribery against his rival. When the charge finally came before a House of Commons committee almost two years later, Delaval would withdraw his allegations having failed, rather surprisingly, to gather sufficient evidence of Bowes’s trickery.
Certainly, Bowes had expended a colossal sum on his campaign - in excess of £20,000, more than the combined outlay of his fellow opponents, according to one estimate.9 From his point of view, it had been worth every penny. As a Member of Parliament he was now in a prime position to take advantage of and dispense government patronage and was fully confident that the desired Irish peerage finally lay within his grasp. Just as he had seduced countless women with his false promises and fake flattery over the years, Bowes had cynically duped the Newcastle electorate. And just as he had discarded the women who fell under his spell once they had served their purpose, he now proceeded to treat his constituents and their concerns with barely concealed contempt. Soon abandoning his pretended radical views, Bowes would rarely bother to attend Parliament, vacillate between government and opposition when he did vote, and speak only once - to oppose a bill to reduce election bribery on the grounds that existing laws were already ‘too severe’. For all his declared opposition to the American war, he refused to condemn the Government’s continued campaign. Indeed it was Ridley, the government loyalist, who would unexpectedly win the freemen’s gratitude over the coming parliamentary term for his bold criticism of ministerial policy. Yet while North and his successors would continue to dangle an Irish peerage before Bowes’s greedy eyes as a lure to support the Government on crucial votes, the longed-for prize would remain elusive.
Bowes was not the only one with his sights on Ireland as 1780 drew to a close. Now twenty-two, and having been a captive for two-and-a-half years, Mary Stoney had become desperate to escape her brother’s tyranny. When Bowes moved the family down to London in order to assume his rightful place in Parliament soon after the election, she finally saw her chance. Having given up the lease on 40 Grosvenor Square earlier in the year, Bowes rented a suite in the Adelphi Tavern, the same building in which he had faked his duel just three years earlier, now making a name for itself as the Adelphi Hotel.10 But rather than attend to his constituents’ interests by immersing himself in parliamentary business, Bowes was busy hatching another of his moneymaking scams, this time plotting to marry his sister to a nineteen-year-old earl with a £12,000 annual income. Plainly intent on securing a sizeable portion of this fortune for himself, in early December Bowes invited the earl and his mother to the Adelphi on the pretext of arranging a match with his eldest stepdaughter, Lady Maria, now twelve. The fact that Maria was rarely allowed even to inhabit the same room as her stepfather let alone become the subject of his marriage schemes was seemingly unknown to the gullible earl and his ambitious mother. It mattered little to Bowes’s elaborate plot. Exactly as he had planned, the impressionable aristocrat fell instead for Mary Stoney and - just as Bowes had hoped - begged her to elope with him to tie the nuptial knot in Scotland.
Mary, however, had other ideas. With more than a trace of the family talent for guile, she surreptitiously packed her few belongings and in the middle of the night on 7 December, while her brother and sister-in-law slept soundly, she swapped clothes with a hotel chambermaid, crept down the stairs and fled into the London streets. When Bowes woke to discover his sister’s absence the following morning he was incandescent with rage; at the very scene of his most flamboyant deception, his younger sister had outwitted him and escaped his command. Preparing hurriedly to set off in pursuit, on the assumption that his sister would head directly for Ireland, Bowes dictated to Mary Eleanor an even more than usually vituperative letter to his father. Suppressing her grief at losing her one remaining friend and confidante, Mary was forced to upbraid George Stoney over the ‘dreadful accident’ of his daughter’s escape. Warning that the incident had caused Bowes ‘the greatest agitation I ever beheld’ she declared that she was now severing all links with the family in Ireland on the grounds that, ‘I have never met with a greater instance of Impropriety or Ingratitude’. Bowes himself would later renounce his little sister as a ‘viper’, lamenting that he had raised her from ‘obscurity’ and polished her ‘bad Education’ only for her to scupper his plans to advance her through marriage. ‘But, base and ungrateful as she has proved herself to be, why do I call her sister?’ he raged.
Seemingly he had educated young Mary only too well. For as Bowes raced towards Holyhead in the hope of overtaking his sister, she was savouring her freedom within walking distance of the Adelphi. Knowing that he would expect her to make for the coast, Mary had instead gone into hiding with some friends in London. Assuming a false name and venturing out only under cover of night, she would wait a full three months before risking the voyage to Ireland. It would be March 1781 before Mary Stoney finally arrived home in Tipperary, where her frantic parents and siblings welcomed her with heartfelt relief. ‘Had the pleasure of receiving our daughter Mary in good health and spirits,’ her father recorded in his diary that month, adding: ‘It was a serious, solemn meeting, where tears could not flow and find passage. More serious and violent agitation succeeded; demonstration of the love and affection of a Family to their restored daughter and sister.’11 All communication between the two families now strictly forbidden by Bowes, it would be five more years before the two Marys could make contact once again. By then happily married, Mary Stoney would confess that the only bar to her pleasure since the day of her escape was the knowledge that she had been forced to leave her sister-in-law behind. ‘At the time I left him I would have given the World I could have brought you out of the misery you were in,’ she wrote, adding that she had hoped her flight might act as a warning to Bowes to mend his ways.12 Instead, as she would later realise, ‘it only made him worse’.
Indeed, having allowed one victim to escape from under his very nose, Bowes was now doubly intent on keeping Mary Eleanor under his despotic control. With her fellow captive gone, she felt the full force of Bowes’s violent temper and draconian restrictions. And when her mother died in January 1781, at the age of sixty, Mary was more alone than ever. Having always detested his shrewd mother-in-law, who had done her best to protect her grandchildren and their inheritance from his grasping fingers, Bowes now gloated over her death and exulted in Mary’s grief. She wrote that he ‘insulted and triumphed in agonies I felt’, while his ‘cruelties and infidelities increased to an incredible degree’.13 From now on, Mary wrote, ‘scarce a day passed, in which I did not receive undeserved abuse, or blows and very often the latter during every day in a week’. Despite the fact that Mrs Bowes had cannily altered her will soon after Mary’s marriage, to replace her daughter as trustee of her estate with the sensible Joseph Planta, now joint secretary of the Royal Society, and John Ord, a lawyer and MP friendly with the Strathmore family, her annual widow’s jointure of £1,600 now descended to Bowes as legal recipient of his wife’s property. 14 And even though Mrs Bowes had tied up her estate at St Paul’s Walden Bury in trust for her grandson George until he reached the age of twenty-one, it was Bowes who assumed possession by taking advantage of the will’s proviso that Mary could move there within three months of her mother’s death if she so desired.
Only thirty miles from London, the elegant Adam-style house provided a convenient base for Bowes’s occasional parliamentary business. Hastily bundling the family and servants into coaches, Bowes rattled up the snaking driveway almost the moment Mrs Bowes’s coffin departed in the opposite direction, bound for interment beside her beloved late husband at Gibside.15 Strutting from room to room as he inspected his latest acquisition, Bowes forbade Mary from walking in the beautiful formal gardens - where Bowes had seduced her only four years earlier - or from visiting the hothouses where her Cape seeds were now flourishing.
Reduced to gazing on the formal walks and hedges from the French windows, her every movement monitored by maids and footmen reporting to Bowes, Mary had only her youngest daughter, now three years old, for company. Despite, or perhaps because of, her uncertain paternity, they enjoyed a strong and loving bond; Mary Stoney would later ask about the ‘little Darling’ whom her mother took ‘so much Pleasure in’.16 No doubt Mary’s delight in her infant daughter was intensified by the fact that contact with her five older children was being increasingly rationed by Thomas Lyon. While later writers would suggest that she continued to neglect her sons after their father’s death, never paying them a visit at their boarding school in Neasden, the truth was that she was actively prevented from doing so. Having last seen her three boys in November 1780, she had since been refused permission for them to visit. A letter sent by John, now eleven, at the end of November had reported that he and his brothers, George, nine, and Thomas, seven, were ‘very well’ in Neasden but were not allowed leave to see their mother.17
As she grieved for her own mother at St Paul’s Walden Bury, Mary now begged Lyon to let her see her sons. ‘The severe affliction I have lately experienced by the loss of an affectionate and beloved parent naturally leads me to claim with more than usual earnestness the satisfaction of my Childrens Company as the greatest Consolation I can receive.’ Pointing out that the boys’ school was less than thirty miles from her new home, where previously the children had stayed with their grandmother during the holidays, she could not resist adding that the ample provision they all enjoyed was almost entirely due to her family’s fortune. Lyon was unmoved. Having always detested his sister-in-law and being understandably suspicious of Bowes, he issued strict instructions to the boys’ schoolmaster, Richard Raikes, to deny all visits to their mother. So when Mary wrote to Raikes in May 1781 requesting that her sons come to stay for the ensuing holidays she was distraught to learn that they had already set out for Uncle Thomas’s house in County Durham, passing on their journey within five miles of St Paul’s Walden.
Worse news was to come, for shortly afterwards Mary discovered by chance that John had been sent onwards from Durham to continue his education at Edinburgh High School. Denied any consultation on the decision, or even an opportunity to say goodbye to her eldest son, Mary complained bitterly that the move was ‘extraordinary and unjust’, especially since the late Lord Strathmore had declared that Scotland was ‘the last place in the world’ where he would educate his sons. Plainly Uncle Thomas had decided he could keep a closer watch on the Bowes heir in the north than if he remained a tantalisingly short drive from his stepfather. Alone in his new school, in a country he barely knew, a full three days’ journey from his mother and his siblings, the little Lord Strathmore poured his attentions into creating a garden and tending a pet tortoise, the bills meticulously sent as usual to Lyon. It would be more than two years before Mary heard from him at all, a full six before she would see him again. Her son’s silence, doubtless dictated by Uncle Thomas, wounded her deeply. Having always prided herself on the respect she had tendered her own parents, Mary was both hurt and offended that her eldest son failed to demonstrate the ‘duty’ that Georgian children were expected to show towards their parents. Yet while she would scold him for his ‘extremely unusual’ conduct, she plaintively assured him that she was ‘more warmly interested in your welfare than any other person can possibly be’.
Hoping at least to see Maria and Anna, who turned thirteen and eleven respectively in 1781, Mary was desolate when she discovered that they too had been despatched to County Durham for the spring holidays. Although she had so far been permitted more frequent visits from her daughters, who had often spent Sundays with her in London, once they returned from their little sojourn with Uncle Thomas these meetings were sharply curtailed, possibly on the basis of the girls’ depictions of life in the Bowes household. From May onwards her requests to spend time with the girls were repeatedly refused by their schoolmistresses in Queen’s Square and on the few occasions they were granted the girls were not permitted to stay overnight. Now months would go by without any contact from her girls and when they could not spend holidays in Durham they had to stay behind at school - even during Christmas - rather then be permitted to visit their mother. Growing increasingly estranged from their mother, the girls were nevertheless encouraged to visit other relatives and see playmates approved by their vigilant guardian. Progressively deprived of contact with her children and even denied news of their health, Mary became anxious and dejected. Yet her continual appeals to Lyon, by turns poignant, terse and despairing, were coolly rebuffed with the insistence that he sought only to ‘promote their happiness and welfare’.
At the very moment that the family was being splintered ever further apart, Bowes chose to commission a family portrait from one of the era’s most fashionable artists, John Downman.18 As popular as he was prolific, Welsh-born Downman was heavily in demand with the aristocracy and the gentry for his delicate portraits which were mostly executed in black and white chalk with smudges of red sometimes applied to the reverse to lend a subtle blush to lips and cheeks. Particularly noted for his charming portraits of children, Downman often scribbled unguarded comments about his sitters on his preliminary sketches. His nine portraits of Bowes, Mary and the six children (Anna being drawn twice) were made at some point in 1781, according to Downman’s inscription, in preparation for a group family picture. Since at no point that year were all eight members together in one place, Downman must have made the Strathmore children’s portraits separately, possibly at their schools before John was banished to Edinburgh.
Probably commissioned to mark Bowes’s elevation to the House of Commons to furnish the customary image of the respected politician surrounded by his cheerful family, the sketches show the 34-year-old MP dressed smartly with a white cravat wound tightly around his throat and his hair neatly curled and tied in a fashionable queue at the back. Haughty and confident, his profile displays the handsome visage which had allured so many women with its full lips and large, striking eyes framed by long lashes. By comparison, Mary’s portrait depicts a gaunt, anxious face and although her hair is powdered and piled high in contemporary fashionable style, her wide, sunken eyes look to one side in apparent fear. Of the children, the young Earl of Strathmore looks mournful and solemn, despite inheriting his father’s good looks and his mother’s curls, as if bearing the entire family’s misfortunes on his narrow shoulders. While his brother George wears an equally serious expression, young Thomas is the only one of the boys to sport an impish grin. Slightly plump, in a low-cut dress tied with bows at the back, their elder sister Maria casts her eyes demurely down, although pretty Anna smiles coquettishly at the artist. Of all six children, only three-year-old Mary appears truly childlike and carefree, with her mischievous big eyes and cheeky smile beneath thickly tousled hair, in marked contrast to her mother’s frightened face. On the mount, Downman had written: ‘Her Ladyship had only this Girl by her present Husband.’
The happy family portrait anticipated by Downman never materialised - just as the politician’s model family envisaged by Bowes would never exist - and only the individual portraits remain. But despite Downman’s presumption the family was set to expand once more. That summer, at the age of thirty-two, after four wretched years of marriage, Mary found herself pregnant again, for the first time bearing Bowes’s child. But her condition did nothing to ameliorate Bowes’s behaviour.
After spending the long summer recess in County Durham, Bowes seemed in no particular hurry to return to London to pursue his constituents’ interests. That October he organised a shooting party to Wemmergill, the remote grouse moor in the North Pennines which had belonged to the Bowes family since the sixteenth century.19 Among the party, joining himself and Mary at Wemmergill Hall, were Bowes’s long-suffering financial advisor William Davis and his spinster sister Ann, along with another sister Sarah and her husband General Frederick, who had all been spending the greater part of the summer with the family in the north. Experiencing the cravings common to early pregnancy, Mary looked forward to eating the plentiful grouse being shot on her ancestors’ moorland. But when the men and dogs returned that evening with their bags full, Bowes laid out the plump birds in front of her then promptly packaged them up to send to a mistress in Durham. Sick with hunger and disappointment Mary spent the next day in bed.
Normally so careful to present himself as the tender and attentive husband, catering to his fickle wife’s every need, Bowes’s behaviour had now degenerated to the point that even his guests were struck by it. Ann Davis would later describe his conduct towards his wife as ‘very austere and overbearing’ while her sister, Mrs Frederick, noted that Mary had been ‘exceedingly disappointed’ over the anticipated game. A little later, having returned with their hosts to stay at Streatlam Castle, Mrs Frederick was woken in the night by the sound of Mary screaming but when she enquired at breakfast as to the cause of the sudden alarm, Mary insisted that all was well. Despite the denial, the guests were beginning to suspect that their generous host, the esteemed MP for Newcastle, was perhaps not the upstanding member of society he had led them to believe. On another occasion, Bowes forced Mary to go riding with the two sisters on the most uncomfortable mount the Streatlam stables could provide, a ‘hard trotting Scotch Galloway’ - a pony traditionally renowned for its stamina in the lead mines. After four miles over the potholed country roads, Mary was suffering such violent pains that she had to lie in a ditch while Ann Davis sent ahead to alert Bowes and request a carriage. Returning home, her agony was ‘so great’, Mary would later write, that she suffered ‘convulsively hysterical fits for most of the day’. Undeterred by her protests, Bowes insisted that Mary continue to ride daily along the rough, rutted roads to pay formal visits to their neighbours. At the same time he forced her to drink milk, which she loathed, and banned her from drinking tea, which she loved.
Yet even as he persecuted and beat Mary, Bowes fretted over her health. ‘He was tremblingly alive for the fate of the Countess,’ his surgeon Foot would recall, ‘and watched all her movements like ARGUS.’20 While he may have been as vigilant as the hundred-eyed giant of Greek myth, Bowes’s anxiety had little to do with Mary’s own welfare. Terrified that if she died in childbirth or from its after-effects - the common fate of countless Georgian women - and left him without an heir he would lose all rights to the Bowes fortune, he hedged his bets by insuring her life. Plying his agent in London with repeated requests to take out new insurance policies, while instructing him not to mention Mary’s pregnancy, Bowes explained, ‘for though Lady Strathmore is in Perfect Health, yet as she is with child, I am determined to insure her life deeply’.
Much to Bowes’s relief, on 8 March 1782, Mary gave birth in London to a healthy son, and soon recovered from her ordeal.21 A legitimate heir for Bowes at last, the boy was named William Johnstone Bowes, in honour of Mary’s grandfather and Bowes’s maternal ancestors. When news reached Newcastle three days later, the city’s church bells were rung into the night in celebration of the absent MP’s happy event. But far from mending divisions between his parents, the new infant would only provide further opportunities for Bowes to humiliate and torment his wife.
As Mary regained her strength during the traditional lying-in period in the new lodgings Bowes had rented in St James’s Place near Green Park, William was handed to a wet-nurse hired for the purpose. His father had taken particular care in choosing the woman for the job - Bowes always handpicked the servants without consulting his wife - but his close attention to the task had little to do with the dietary needs of his son. Although he was no book lover, conceivably Bowes had read contemporary advice on choosing a wet-nurse which described the ideal candidate as between twenty and thirty-five years old, clean and neat, with sound teeth and no signs of ‘distemper’.22 If so, he would no doubt have lingered on the recommendation that her breasts should be large, full and soft and the nipples ‘rather long and slender, of a moderate size and firmness’ and quite possibly even tested the suggestion that ‘by gentle pressure’ the milk should easily flow. The woman he duly appointed, Mrs Houghton, was grubby, illiterate and totally unsuited to looking after a young infant - at least in Mary’s eyes. ‘She hurt my son much by bad milk, dirt, and every species of neglect,’ she would complain.23 Bowes, by contrast, found her highly desirable.
For all his political friends’ assurances that he was a reformed character, the public focus on Bowes’s private foibles had done nothing to curb his voracious sexual appetite. No longer attempting to maintain the charade of the faithful husband and devoted family man, Bowes now openly cavorted with the female servants, brought his mistresses and prostitutes into the house and exultantly informed Mary of his sexual exploits.
While many Georgian husbands indulged in extramarital affairs and fathered children out of wedlock few were quite as brazen, or quite as prolific, as Bowes. Although Mary had long been aware, through the letters she intercepted and remarks she overheard, that Bowes had frequented brothels, maintained mistresses and spawned illegitimate offspring, until now he had always attempted to deny or conceal his intrigues. Now that he had an heir, he dropped all efforts at subterfuge and flaunted his affairs before Mary, the servants, his friends and even his children. Having already made a point of sending a present of game to one lover in Durham, Bowes fawned in public over a wealthy Newcastle woman, a certain ‘Miss W-’, for whom he even contemplated that well-worn ruse of fighting a duel. But never content with only one object of sexual desire, he informed Mary in 1782 that he intended to seduce the beautiful daughter of a farmer living near St Paul’s Walden and install her in the house as a companion for Mary. In the event, his lustful ambitions went comically awry. Spying on the daughter through the farmhouse window one night as she undressed for bed, Bowes was attacked by her father’s dog which savaged his leg. Frustrated by this unfortunate escapade, Bowes now threatened to dismiss Mary’s maid, Isabella Fenton, and replace her with another of his mistresses. When Mary insisted that this was ‘a dignity not to be endured’ he flung wine in her face then emptied a decanter of water over her head. While Mary kept her maid, Bowes was undeterred.
That December he arranged another shooting party, this time inviting some of his male cronies to join the family at Cole Pike Hill. Cramped as it was with the additional guests, Mary and Bowes had to share their bedroom with nine-month-old William and his nurse, Mrs Houghton, put up on camp beds. On the second night Mary woke with a start to find the bed empty beside her. Upon drawing back the bed curtains she saw Bowes suddenly leap from the nurse’s bed and pretend to stoke the fire. Asked what he was doing, Bowes claimed he had got up because he had heard the baby cry. When one of the guests departed the following day, Mary instructed Mrs Houghton to move into the vacated room only to receive a severe reprimand from Bowes.
Back at Gibside, Bowes abandoned any last effort to hide his lust for the obliging wet-nurse, insisting that she eat at a side-table in the dining room each evening then sending Mary to her room so that he could entertain Mrs Houghton alone into the early hours. Gossip over the unseemly familiarity between master and servant spread quickly through the household; one maid was shocked to find Bowes and Mrs Houghton deep in private conversation late one evening in the nursery as young William tottered unheeded around them.24 Poorly educated, ill-groomed and down at heel, Mrs Houghton was typical of the women Bowes preyed upon. Lured by the heady mixture of power, money and good looks, such women were eager to advance their fortunes by tending to the well-connected MP’s predilections. For his part Bowes could indulge his prodigious sexual needs without fear of being intellectually outsmarted.
Staying north throughout the winter of 1782 to 1783, Bowes informed the new premier, Lord Shelburne, that ‘a severe indisposition’ had prevented him from attending to his parliamentary duties.25 Yet there was nothing wrong with the MP’s health as Bowes explained to a friend - ‘A want of money, not a want of health, has detained me here so long.’ Not long after William turned one that spring it became apparent that his negligent wet-nurse was steadily gaining weight. ‘I soon perceived the Nurse’s situation,’ Mary wrote, ‘and when appearances began to be apprehended, the Husband was written to, unknown to me, acquainting him she was ill, and the poor Man was actually so complaisant as to come from London to Gibside, seven miles beyond Newcastle upon Tyne, merely to answer Mr Bowes’s purpose’.26 Having tricked the cuckolded husband into hastening to Gibside with reports that his wife was sick, Bowes ensured he stayed long enough to enjoy his conjugal rights in order to justify her burgeoning figure. A week later, Mrs Houghton had miraculously regained her health and her gullible spouse was packed off back to the capital.
As Mrs Houghton bloomed, rather precipitously after her husband’s hurried visit, news of her circumstances spread so that, according to Mary, Bowes’s conduct became ‘either the scandal or the jest of the Country’. His sexual indiscretions and his political negligence now well known, Bowes’s popularity was rapidly waning. At Durham races in July, Bowes was furious to find himself ‘pretty unanimously sent to Coventry’, in the words of one spectator.27 ‘His friend Lord Darlington was not here, nor would he come tho’ Bowes went over Post to Raby to entreat him to appear for one day, but his Lordship had not courage to do it.’ Shunned by his aristocratic friends and mocked by his affluent neighbours, Bowes was fast becoming a pariah. And as details of his debauchery, political apathy and tyrannical behaviour percolated upstairs and downstairs within the county’s stately homes, the erstwhile people’s MP had fallen from grace as the working man’s hero too. Treating his servants and estate staff with arrogance and contempt, Bowes refused to pay the workmen at Gibside, raised rents on the farms and sacked loyal workers in his increasingly frequent fits of passion.28 Having clashed with Bowes the previous year, Thomas Joplin, the Gibside gardener, swore that Nature had been determined to insult mankind when she made ‘such a monster wear the Human forme’.
Humiliated by the spiralling rumours and the expanding Mrs Houghton as she staggered around Gibside with little William and six-year-old Mary in tow, Mary decided she had had enough. Finally she confronted Bowes, ‘telling him it was high time to part with so useless a servant, who cut so indecent a figure when she brought in the children after Dinner’. But instead of discreetly sending Mrs Houghton away, in August Bowes hired a new maid, a local tenant’s daughter called Dorothy Stephenson, to wait upon the wet-nurse.
A simple country girl of seventeen who had grown up on the Bowes family estate, Dorothy was somewhat surprised to discover the state of affairs at Gibside Hall.29 Taking her orders from the heavily pregnant Mrs Houghton, Dorothy watched in astonishment as the master of the house fussed over the nurse’s well-being yet raged at his meek and dutiful wife. While Bowes plied the smug Mrs Houghton with presents, Dorothy heard him refuse his wife’s requests for money to buy clothes and shoes for herself or the children. On only her second night in the house, an even more shocking surprise was in store for Dorothy. Sleeping in the nursery with Mrs Houghton and little Mary - William being then elsewhere - Dorothy had locked the door upon retiring to bed. Just after midnight she heard the handle rattle and then, when the door refused to yield, a man’s voice calling urgently to Mrs Houghton to open the door. Feigning sleep, Dorothy peeked from under the bedclothes to see the nurse tiptoeing over in her shift and opening the door to the master of the house dressed only in his night cap and dressing gown. Next she saw Bowes climb into the nurse’s bed and minutes later heard the unmistakeable sound of springs being pounded. Innocent but not naive, Dorothy had no doubt that the noise was due to ‘two Persons in the act of carnally knowing each other’. The following day Bowes made a point of handing the nursery door key to Mrs Houghton with instructions to her and Dorothy that it must never be locked again. A fortnight later, Mrs Houghton, now seven months pregnant, left the household. Tenderly escorting her to his carriage, Bowes accompanied her to London where she would begin her lying-in.
If Bowes treated Mrs Houghton with significantly more kindness than he usually reserved for his mistresses, her absence did not cause him to pine for long. Moving the household down to London that autumn, Bowes leased a new house in the West End; only a few doors from the family’s former home, in the south-east corner of Grosvenor Square, number 48 was even more spacious and came fully furnished.30 For young Dorothy, seeing London for the first time, the square’s spacious garden, crowned by its statue of George I and surrounded by opulent mansion houses, was a stirring sight. But even more startling than her new home was the role she was now expected to adopt within the household. Sleeping in the nursery with eighteen-month-old William, with the door unlocked as her employer had dictated, Dorothy awoke one night in alarm to discover somebody climbing into her bed.31 Screaming in terror, she immediately recognised the voice of her master who brusquely warned her to hold her tongue then crammed a handkerchief into her mouth. Gagged and pinned to her bed, Dorothy, a virgin, was powerless to resist as Bowes brutally raped her. Deflowered and degraded, Dorothy knew she could neither denounce Bowes nor rebuff further assaults; as his employee and, moreover, the daughter of his tenants, any defiance would mean disaster both for her and for her family. From now on, whenever she heard Bowes steal into the nursery at night - whether in Grosvenor Square, Gibside or St Paul’s Walden Bury - she had no alternative but to submit to his violations while the children slept innocently in their beds. Nevertheless, unlike the willing Mrs Houghton, Dorothy succumbed to Bowes’s advances with disgust while carefully storing up details of the abuse she suffered and the scenes she witnessed for future use.
With his political ambitions frustrated - as Shelburne steadfastly resisted Bowes’s cringing appeals for an Irish peerage - and his society pretensions thwarted, Bowes’s behaviour was becoming even more irrational, and his violence more sadistic. Possessed by a compulsive, quite probably psychotic, urge to control everyone and everything around him, he could never feel at ease. No matter how much wealth or privilege he accrued he would never be content, as his father perceptively remarked: ‘Notwithstanding Mr Bowes’s great Fortune, I am persuaded there is not one of his family who is not happyer than he is.’32
Unable to bear his aspirations being obstructed, Bowes increasingly visited his rage on Mary. Soon after Dorothy’s arrival in the household, when the family was staying at St Paul’s Walden Bury, she rushed to her mistress’s aid when Mary left the dining room saying she felt ill.33 Upstairs Mary began to have one of the fits to which she was increasingly susceptible and sent Dorothy to seek help from an apothecary who, by chance, was dining with the family that evening. Bowes, however, refused to permit the apothecary to tend to his wife and instead stormed upstairs to her room, slamming the door behind him. Immediately, Dorothy heard Mary scream ‘as if beat or pinched violently’. The following day she noticed her mistress’s face ‘much discoloured’ and heard Mary complain that she could barely lift her arms from pain. On other occasions, when Bowes thought he was unobserved, Dorothy witnessed him pinch, punch and kick his wife, raining blows on her face, head and body, for the most trivial of reasons, such as making too much noise when playing with their son. ‘The life of the Countess’, Dorothy would later attest, ‘was, by the cruelty of Mr Bowes, made one continual scene of distress and misery.’
Mary Eleanor would later date Bowes’s worst abuses from the birth of their son. From that point on, she would say, ‘he used me with more cruelty and indignity than ever, and seized the most frivolous pretences, such as merely walking from one room to another’.34 At one point, he beat her around her eyes so badly as to make the ‘whole room appear in a Blaze’. At other times he would amuse himself by striking her repeatedly on the back of her head in the knowledge that her ‘treacherous’ thick hair would obscure all signs of injury. ‘I was constantly in such terror and confusion’, Mary would recall, ‘from the Blows, threats, curses and ill language I had recently received (frequently only the very instant before) that I was, for some time rendered incapable of hearing or replying to what people said even in common conversation; and upon these occasions Mr Bowes used to intimidate me still more by saying “are you deaf ?” ’
While his assaults were calculated and sustained, Bowes maintained constant control over Mary’s life with elaborate rules and rigid constraints. Refused money for clothes, shoes and undergarments, Mary’s gowns became so ragged that she looked, according to Dorothy, ‘worse cloathed than any of the Servants’ and ‘frequently had scarcely a shift or Pair of Stockings fit to put on’.35 At times she was forced to borrow underwear or stockings from her maids; on other occasions she borrowed money from them to pay for minor expenses. Permitted only to eat or drink according to Bowes’s orders to the kitchen staff, Mary was frequently weak or ill. One kitchen maid, Susanna Church, who cooked and smuggled some chicken to Mary during one of her bouts of sickness, was immediately reported by the cook and promptly sacked by Bowes.36 And at all times, whether on her rare walks in the gardens or simply walking from one room to another, Mary was accompanied by a servant or companion who reported all her movements to Bowes.
Forbidden sight of her children by Thomas Lyon, Bowes ensured that Mary was denied any consolation in her chief interest: botany. Since Paterson’s return from the Cape, Mary had continued to write to Thomas Joplin, the long-suffering gardener at Gibside, with instructions on tending the shrubs and beds, nurturing her plants in the greenhouse and hothouse, and preserving a collection of feathers, skins and other curiosities which she kept in a ‘museum’ at Gibside Hall.37 Yet she was rarely allowed sight of any of these treasures. When Joplin left or was dismissed in late 1782 or early 1783, Bowes issued strict orders to the new gardener, Robert Thompson, to ignore all his mistress’s instructions, to bar her entry to the walled garden or greenhouse on pain of being sacked and to refuse her any fruits or flowers that grew within. At one point Bowes ordered Thompson to release hares in the garden deliberately to destroy Mary’s flowers. A dedicated gardener and a kindly man, though he suffered poor health, was riddled with lice and was clothed in rags, Thompson obeyed his orders reluctantly and keenly felt his mistress’s disappointment. On one occasion he gave in to her plea to visit the garden for a moment in order to see a single flower but instantly regretted his lapse when Bowes suddenly appeared and began abusing her ‘in the most ridiculous manner’. Once when Mary walked to the greenhouse without permission, Thompson saw Bowes rush from the house and was shocked when he ‘struck and beat her Ladyship’s Backside’. Ordinarily, he would later affirm, Mary was escorted on her brief garden visits by a servant or female companion chosen by Bowes as her guard ‘as if she was a prisoner for life’.
Pale from being confined indoors, gaunt from lack of food, dressed in tatters and cowed by perpetual abuse, Mary could easily have been mistaken by guests for the household’s lowliest scullery maid. Even Jessé Foot, visiting St Paul’s Walden Bury at some point in 1783 to inoculate young William against smallpox, noticed the change. ‘The Countess, whom I had not seen for sometime before this visit, was wonderfully ALTERED and DEJECTED,’ he recorded. ‘She was pale and nervous, and her under jaw constantly moved from side to side. If she said any thing, she looked at him first. If she was asked to drink a glass of wine, she took his intelligence before she answered.’ During a brief walk through the sadly overgrown gardens one morning, Mary wanly showed the surgeon the ruined beds, shrubs and lawns. ‘She even pointed out the assistance her own hand had lent to individual articles,’ added Foot. ‘In observing her during her conversation, the agitation of her mind was apparent by this action of her mouth. She would look for some time, hesitate, and then her under jaw would act in that convulsive manner, which absolutely explained her state of melancholy remembrance beyond all other proofs abstracted knowledge could confirm, or technical teachers could demonstrate.’38
At heart an intellectual snob - as a young apprentice to his apothecary uncle he had insisted on replying to any criticisms in Latin - Foot had always felt somewhat in awe of Mary’s education and intelligence. But fundamentally a money-grasping social climber - he pompously appointed himself ‘voluntary watchman’ over his older and superior rival John Hunter - he would remain fawningly faithful to Bowes.39 Ignoring, therefore, any duty to medical ethics, in November 1783 Foot delivered Mrs Houghton of a baby girl at her London lodgings, assured her husband it was not unusual to give birth at six months and was paid generously by Bowes for his troubles.40
As the country lurched into constitutional crisis at the end of 1783, when George III summarily deposed the short-lived Fox-North coalition by appointing 24-year-old William Pitt as premier, Bowes’s conduct was becoming dangerously volatile. His political intuition had plainly deserted him, for this time Bowes backed the wrong horse, voting with the debauched Fox just as the clean-living Pitt began dispensing peerages to bolster his minority government’s chances. All hope of an Irish peerage now evaporated for good. While Pitt soldiered relentlessly on after the Christmas recess, braving his repeated defeats with a cool and calculating head, Bowes floundered in fits of inebriated rage as he saw his ambitions flouted. Just as the country yearned for an honest, dedicated and incorruptible leader, in contrast to the hard-gambling, extravagant, licentious Fox, so Bowes misjudged the mood of the electorate and the patience of his long-suffering supporters. If Pitt was the man of the moment, so Bowes was fast becoming a figure of the past, unable to hide his greed, his lasciviousness or his brutality even in front of his close friends or his children.
That January, Dorothy was playing with William, nearly two, in the dining room while Mary wrote to Bowes’s dictation.41 Abruptly accusing her of misunderstanding his meaning, Bowes snatched a knife from a side table and threatened to cut her throat. Only the intervention of William Davis, Bowes’s financial advisor, who walked into the room at that point, defused the situation. Quickly replacing the knife, Bowes switched his grimace to a smile and purred, ‘go up stairs my Dear, & finish your letters’. The following month, Bowes brought Mrs Houghton to Grosvenor Square to show off her baby daughter. When Mary asked to be excused, humiliated by this latest indignity, he kicked her and flung an inkstand at her head, which only just missed its mark. Ushering in Mrs Houghton, Bowes cooed over her infant, while his son William ran in fear from the nurse he had not seen for four months. Sternly Bowes informed him he would have to get used to the nurse since she would shortly be taking charge of him again. He then turned to Mary and brazenly asked her to agree that the baby was ‘a very fine Girl’, to which she responded with rare spirit, that ‘it was the largest I had ever seen, considering it came at seven Months’. For all her sudden defiance, Mary was forced to vacate her bedroom so that Mrs Houghton could spend the remainder of the day there being waited upon by the servants. Ultimately, it was only the objections of the family’s latest chaplain, Reverend Henry Reynett, that dissuaded Bowes from moving Mrs Houghton and her baby into the house.
By spring 1784, as a new general election loomed, poor Dorothy was herself pregnant with Bowes’s child and knew her working days were numbered. Already Bowes had attempted to recruit a sixteen-year-old prostitute, Elizabeth Jackson, as a replacement for Mary’s maid, who was finally leaving. Only the protestations of the wealthy lawyer who normally ‘kept’ the girl as a mistress and threatened to expose Bowes, forced him to let her go. Now Bowes set about appointing a new nursemaid to replace Dorothy, with his usual close attention to the task. Arriving at Grosvenor Square for an interview in February, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Waite soon realised the broad remit of the job in question when her prospective employer lunged at her and took, what she later termed, ‘improper liberties’.42 Despite this unorthodox interviewing technique, being out of work, desperately poor and with her father in debtors’ prison, Elizabeth returned one evening a few days later on the understanding that she would meet her future mistress. Escorted upstairs to the dining room by Bowes, Elizabeth waited patiently to meet the children’s mother while their father pawed and kissed her. When finally she objected to his ‘indecent familiarities’ in the realisation that the anticipated meeting was not going to happen, Bowes threw her onto a sofa and raped her. The promised job never materialised; a few weeks later the wretched Elizabeth made a pathetic effort to blackmail Bowes in a letter intercepted by Mary which warned, ‘you told me that I was bad but I never was bad but to you and i am very sorry to think i was so easily taken by you as i was for you took me in a very undesent manner’. When the blackmailing attempt proved fruitless, Elizabeth had little alternative but to turn to prostitution. For the moment Dorothy’s position was secure. Yet well aware that her condition would soon become obvious, and that her presence in the household would then be an embarrassment to her master, Dorothy was becoming increasingly anxious over her own and her mistress’s safety.
When the general election was finally declared at the end of March, Bowes was summoned north to justify his woeful parliamentary record to the disgruntled voters in Newcastle with Mary his stalwart consort as usual. Having expended vast sums securing his parliamentary seat only to have his aspirations to the peerage repeatedly stalled, Bowes was in no mood for a third expensive contest to woo the Newcastle freemen. Having placed their trust in the radical campaigner only to see him flagrantly ignore their interests in Parliament, the city’s electors were equally in no mood to squander their vote on Bowes a second time. Not surprisingly, therefore, many of the radicals were eager to switch their support to an alternative candidate, Charles Brandling, an independent thinker from a long-established local coal-owning family. So as the three prospective candidates - Ridley standing on a certainty again - set out their policies in the Guildhall, the gathered freemen anticipated a vigorous meeting. Bowes did not disappoint them. After Ridley gave a ‘short, though sensible’ speech, Bowes launched into a belligerent, menacing and, quite probably, drunken tirade which lasted nearly two hours. Dismissing well-founded rumours that he had been seeking a seat in Durham, he tersely informed the voters that it was their fault if he had not followed their desires in Parliament as they had not given him adequate instruction. He then levelled a personal attack on Brandling with such ferocity that he would later be forced to quash suggestions that this amounted to a challenge to a duel.43
As popular support for Pitt swelled across the country, it was little wonder that the tide of feeling ran strongly against Bowes in the weeks leading to the opening of the poll on 26 April. One anonymous voter summarised the mood in the local newspaper: ‘Can the Free Burgesses of Newcastle stoop to support a man who intended to have deserted them? Will they suffer themselves to be made a mere step ladder to Mr Bowes’s ambition to be kicked down when he has attained the summit of his views? Have we not seen, whilst he was in Parliament, that his duty to the public, and to his private debts have been discharged with equal punctuality?’44 Reminding the electors that Bowes’s fortune would be entirely lost on Lady Strathmore’s death - which those with memories extending back to his first marriage may have thought relatively imminent - the anonymous correspondent asked: ‘And is there any one action of his life which an honest man can imitate, or a good man applaud ?’ As Ridley and Brandling marched eagerly to the hustings at the start of the poll the crowds waited in vain for Bowes to appear. When finally he arrived it was to announce his resignation from the contest. It was a ‘handsome farewell speech’, Ridley’s brother, Nicholas, remarked with some relief, adding: ‘Mr B’s leavetaking seemed to be for ever.’45 As Ridley and Brandling were chaired through the narrow streets by their jubilant supporters, Bowes walked away from the hustings a defeated and a dangerous man.
Stopping at St Paul’s Walden Bury on the family’s return to London, Bowes looked for an excuse to vent his fury on Mary. It was not long before an opportunity arose. As the family sat down to dinner that evening, with Dorothy sitting at a side table helping two-year-old William with his food, a male servant slyly informed Bowes that he had seen Mary walking in the gardens earlier in the day without permission.46
Immediately spiralling into a rage, Bowes flung a dish of hot potatoes in Mary’s face, swiftly followed by a glass of wine then coldly instructed her to eat the spilled potatoes. Humiliated and terrified in front of the watching servants and her young son, Mary swallowed the potatoes while Bowes stood over her until she was physically sick. At that point, Bowes snatched a large knife from the table, grabbed Mary by the hair and threatened to cut her throat. Visibly shaken at what she had witnessed, Dorothy hurried young William from the room. When Mary later appeared upstairs, her face covered in bruises and one of her ears bleeding, Dorothy gently asked how she had attained her injuries. Mary replied that ‘she durst not tell’.
Having twice been threatened with a knife in a matter of months and knowing that Bowes had accumulated a stack of insurance policies on her life, Mary now genuinely feared for her own safety. Only her concern for her two youngest children, toddling William and six-year-old Mary, deterred her from fleeing, or worse. ‘The only thing that kept me alive was that my younger children’s future interest depended on my existence,’ she would write.47 If she tried to leave, she knew she would almost certainly never be allowed to see her children again; equally she could be forced back to her marital home by law only to face even worse retribution. Petrified, distraught and friendless she saw no prospect of escape.
And then into her life walked Mary Morgan.